Science

Get a load of this: NASA to test laundry detergent made for space

How do astronauts do laundry in space? They don't. Instead, astronauts throw away tons of dirty clothes every year. NASA wants to change that, so they're teaming up with Proctor & Gamble Co. to figure out how to clean clothes in space.

In a galactic battle against soiled clothes, Tide experiments will be sent to the International Space Station

Astronaut Leland Melvin exercises on the International Space Station in 2009 while the space shuttle Atlantis is docked with the station. There's no easy way to do laundry in space, so astronauts wear clothes until they're too dirty, then throw them out. But NASA hopes to change this and is testing detergent made for space. (NASA via The Associated Press)

How do astronauts do laundry in space? They don't.

They wear their underwear, gym clothes and everything else until they can't take the filth and stink anymore, then junk them.

Tons of dirty clothes are thrown away every year, according to NASA. Clothing deemed too dirty to wear is packed away until the trip is over. Then they're placed aboard unmanned cargo ships that burn up in the atmosphere when they return to Earth. To change this, the space agency has teamed up with Proctor & Gamble Co. to figure out how to clean clothes in space so they can be reused for months or even years, just like on Earth.

The Cincinnati company announced Tuesday that it will send a pair of Tide detergent and stain removal experiments to the space station later this year and next, all part of the galactic battle against soiled and sweaty clothes.

It's no small problem, especially as the U.S. and other countries look to establish bases on the moon and Mars.

The ick factor

Rocket cargo space is limited and expensive, according to NASA, so why waste it on extra outfits if clothing could be washed instead?

When you figure an astronaut needs 68 kilograms of clothing in space per year, that quickly adds up, especially on a three-year Mars mission, said Mark Sivik, a chemist specializing in fabric and home care technology for P&G. 

There's also the health — and ick — factor.

Space station astronauts exercise two hours every day to counter the muscle- and bone-withering effects of weightlessness, quickly leaving their workout clothes sweaty, smelly and stiff.

Their T-shirts, shorts and socks end up so foul that they run through a pair every week, according to Leland Melvin, a former NASA astronaut and NFL player.

"After that, they're deemed toxic," said Melvin, who's serving as a spokesperson for the project. "They like have a life of their own. They're so stiff from all that sweat." 

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While NASA and other space station partners have looked into special antimicrobial clothing to prolong wear, it's not a long-term solution. 

Testing space detergent and washers

In its initial experiment, P&G will send up detergent custom-made for space in December so scientists can see how the enzymes and other ingredients react to six months of weightlessness.

Then next May, stain-removal pens and wipes will be delivered for testing by astronauts. 

At the same time, P&G is developing a washer-dryer combo that could operate on the moon or even Mars, using minimal amounts of water and detergent. Such a machine could also prove useful in arid regions here on Earth.

One of the many design challenges: The water from the laundry would need to be reclaimed for drinking and cooking, just like urine and sweat are currently recycled aboard the space station.

"The best solutions come from the most diverse teams," Melvin said, "and how more diverse can you be than Tide and NASA?" 

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